British teenage designer of Summly app hits jackpot

Nick D'Aloisio talks to Jane Wakefield about the inspiration for his app

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Most teenagers will find any reason under the sun not to do their homework.

But 16-year-old South Londoner Nick D'Aloisio's excuse is better than most - he has been busy developing an app which has made international headlines and attracted a big investment from a Hong Kong-based billionaire.

Summly is an iPhone app which summarises and simplifies the content of web pages and search results. Currently it can condense reference pages, news articles and reviews but has the potential to go a lot further.

Mr D'Aloisio - the son of a lawyer and an investment banker - had the brainwave for it while studying.

"I was revising for a history exam and using Google, clicking in and out of search results, and it seemed quite inefficient. If I found myself on a site that was interesting I was reading it and that was wasting time," he said.

"I thought that what I needed was a way of simplifying and summarising these web searches. Google has Instant Preview but that is just an image of the page. What I wanted was a content preview," he says.

App generation

The first iteration of the app, called TrimIt, clocked up 100,000 downloads and caught the eye of Horizons Ventures.

The private equity investment firm is controlled by Li Ka-Shing, the Chinese billionaire who ranks as the eleventh wealthiest person in the world according to the Forbes rich list. His previous investments include Skype, Facebook and Spotify.

His firm sank $250,000 (£159,000) into the project.

Nick D'Aloisio at home Nick D'Aloisio developed the app in his Wimbledon bedroom

Mr D'Aloisio's app subsequently evolved into Summly, and since launching in mid-December has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

Mr D'Aloisio's achievements mark him out from other teenagers - he is also extremely polite, highly motivated and enthusiastic. But it would be misleading to pigeon-hole him as a geek.

He enjoys the humanities, cricket and rugby. He does not even study computing at school - you get the impression there would be little point anyway.

"I want to do philosophy at university and I'm studying Chinese and Russian at school. I find the product and the design of the product much more interesting than the programming," he says.

Mr D'Aloisio is part of a generation of programmers who struggle to remember a time before iTunes, YouTube and mobile internet.

He was nine years old when he was given his first Macintosh laptop - "one of the old ones," he says with a wry smile - and set about teaching himself animation software before progressing through iMovie, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro in his Wimbledon bedroom.

He was doing it for fun - "I hadn't pushed out anything commercially," he says - which is somewhat reassuring given his age.

But it was only a matter of time before he started experimenting with apps. He downloaded the iPhone development kit and designed his first piece of software when he was 12.

Information overload

Called SongStumblr, it was a geo-social music discovery tool which allowed people to share music both with those in the same room and globally.

Next came FingerMill, which was basically a treadmill for your finger. "It was awful but at the time there was only a few thousand apps on the App store and it did manage a couple of hundred downloads," remembers Mr D'Aloisio.

He followed it up with FaceMood - an app which analysed keywords in Facebook statuses and profiles to suggest what mood someone was in at any given time.

By this point Mr D'Aloisio's hobby had set him upon an important path.

"It introduced me to the world of algorithms," he says.

Summly screenshot Mr D'Aloisio has plans to extend his app beyond standard webpages to tackle social networks

Algorithms are sets of step-by-step instructions that carry out procedures designed to achieve an end goal. They are increasingly used to filter the mass of information on the internet - and proved to be the inspiration for Summly.

The app uses an algorithm to recognise what category of information a webpage contains by using "ontological detection" to identify its nature which in turn determines which set of instructions should be used to provide a consolidated summary of its text.

Or to Summlyfy this in Mr D'Aloisio's own words: "It can detect different genres or topics of webpages and apply a specific set of metrics to them."

So, for example, an article categorised as business news would trigger a different set of summary guidelines than those applied to a lifestyle feature.

Boy genius?

Launched in mid-December it clocked up 30,000 downloads in its first week and has summarised many times that number of web pages.

It is currently available as an iPhone app, and there are plans to launch Android and web versions in the New Year. However, Mr D'Aloisio has further ambitions for his invention.

"There is an abundance of information, too many social networks creating too much content. You need tools like Summly and Siri to distil it," he says.

He believes that summaries could make it easier to share content on Facebook and Twitter, and also thinks there is potential to condense e-books and emails.

Mr D'Aloisio reveals that several companies - which he will not name - have been sniffing around with a view to licensing his technology but says for now he is happy to see where it goes.

Modest

Gigaom blogger Om Malik was one of the first journalists to interview the teenager. He described him as a "boy-genius" and compared him to Google's founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

Mr D'Aloisio shrugs off the genius mantle - learning to program "wasn't that difficult" he says.

In fact he still managed to squeeze in all his holiday homework despite having what others might have leapt on as the perfect get-out clause.

When he handed in his summer assignments by their start-of-term deadline his teachers were amazed that he had been able to code the Summly app and still have time for his coursework.

He has since been granted time off to travel to San Francisco in January for a meeting with his backers at Horizons Ventures. He says he may defer his mock GCSEs - although he quickly adds that he has no intention of turning his back on school.

"I enjoy it, seeing my friends, the sport, the whole thing", he says.

One suspects that he does not find the work too taxing either.

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